A time of Gifts – The Economist

From the economist:

A time of gifts

The benefits of incumbency versus the lure of the unknown

Apr 13th 2013

SINCE Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957, the main question answered by general elections has been the size of the government’s majority. The poll that the election commission this week announced would be held on May 5th, is the first the government faces a real possibility of losing. Even if it does not—and the odds must still be in its favour—the election is likely to have a profound impact on Malaysian politics.

The ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, is dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), whose leader, Najib Razak, is prime minister. He has never led the party through an election, having taken over in 2009 after the humiliation of his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, in the election the previous year. For the first time, Barisan lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority that enabled it to change the constitution. Ever since, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, a three-party alliance, has sniffed power. Its most prominent figure, Anwar Ibrahim, was once in line to lead UMNO.

Helped by a strong economy, Mr Najib has been doling out goodies: cash handouts for poorer families; pay rises for civil servants; and promises of affordable housing and new highways. A lot is at stake: simultaneous assembly elections will be held in 12 of the 13 states. In 2008, five elected opposition administrations. More largesse is promised in Barisan’s manifesto. Since its own is equally open-handed, Pakatan accuses its opponents of plagiarism.

The shape of the constituencies gives greater weight to more conservative, pro-government voters in the countryside who are predominantly Malay. To gain a parliamentary majority, the opposition would need to win considerably more than half the popular vote. Accusations of gerrymandering and rigged voter lists are common. But both Mr Najib and Mr Anwar have promised to honour the result.

Pakatan complains Barisan is abusing the perks of office to help its campaign. It is true it has been in power so long that the dividing line between party and government has become blurred. In fact Pakatan’s whole campaign is an onslaught on UMNO for its corruption, which is exacerbated by affirmative-action policies to benefit the Malays and other “indigenous” groups over the Chinese minority (25% of the population) and ethnic Indians (8%). These policies have been debased into vehicles for patronage and cronyism. Mr Najib has chipped away at some Malay privileges, but the strength of UMNO’s right wing has stopped him abolishing them altogether.

Barisan includes ethnic-Indian and Chinese parties, but wracked by scandals, they seem likely to do badly. Pakatan allies Mr Anwar’s multiracial party with a Malay Islamic party and one dominated by Chinese. Whatever the outcome of the election, Barisan’s claim that it represents all of Malaysia’s ethnic groups may become hard to sustain.

If Mr Najib scrapes home, he could still face a challenge from within UMNO. Its right wing would want him out. As for Mr Anwar, he has said that defeat would mark the end of his political career. A controversial but charismatic figure, he has managed to keep his improbable alliance together, but has no obvious successor.



A referendum on race based politics

This is from the New York Times:

Malaysia Vote May Rule on Racial Divide


Published: April 3, 2013

 KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When the prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, announced Wednesday that he was dissolving Parliament, he set in motion an election campaign that will render judgment not just on his embattled governing coalition, but also on Malaysia’s longstanding system of dividing the power and spoils of public life on ethnic lines.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, said that he was dissolving Parliament on Wednesday, setting the stage for a vote.

 “This is a referendum on race-based politics,” Ibrahim Suffian, the director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency, said of the election. “The ruling coalition continues to argue that the existing system brings stability. The opposition is talking more about politics based on class, not race.”

The country has been led since independence in 1957 by a coalition, now known as the National Front, whose three main members are parties that define themselves on explicitly racial lines: one for Malays, the country’s largest ethnic group; one for Chinese; and one for Indians. But in recent years, the cohesion of those groups has begun to fray.

 Chinese voters, who make up about one-quarter of the country’s population of nearly 30 million, have abandoned the coalition in large numbers, and the Malays who have dominated the political hierarchy for five decades are divided.

 “How can you have a country based on race? It’s like South Africa 30 years ago,” said Nariza Hashim, a voter in Kuala Lumpur who is classified as Malay but who has Chinese, Indian and Scottish as well as Malay ancestors.

 Though her grandfather was an early leader of the United Malays National Organization, the Malay component of the coalition, Ms. Nariza said the country’s ethnic classifications baffled her five children. “They really don’t understand why you would ask someone’s race on a government form,” she said.

 The ethnic system has been reinforced over the years by paternalistic news media with close ties to the governing coalition. A leading English-language newspaper, The New Straits Times, ran an article about the elections on its front page Wednesday with a photograph of Mr. Najib waving his index finger, next to the headline “Choose wisely.”

 But young Malaysians are increasingly cynical about the view they see in the establishment press. As Internet access has spread — two-thirds of Malaysians can now use it, up from about 55 percent at the last election in 2008 — independent voices and opposition parties have had an easier time reaching voters.

 “A lot of what I know about what’s happening in the country comes from what my friends share on Facebook,” said Pei Ting Tham, 27, an outdoor sports instructor. “People are much more aware of what’s going on.”

 Some Malaysian policies that discouraged people from speaking out have been repealed in the past two years, including laws barring university students from politics and allowing for detention without trial.

 The opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, made major gains in the 2008 elections, winning control of several states and enough seats in Parliament to deny the governing coalition the two-thirds supermajority that had allowed it to amend the Constitution at will. This time around, analysts and polling experts say, the opposition has its first chance to win outright.

 The way the electoral system is structured and constituency boundaries are drawn may still give the National Front the edge. It won only 51 percent of the total popular vote in 2008, but that translated to 63 percent of the seats in Parliament.

 But Mr. Ibrahim of the polling agency said the government faced a challenge in winning over new voters, who appear “more inclined” to vote for the opposition. More than one-quarter of the electorate this year will be voting for the first time.

 Chinese voters are another challenge. Longstanding preferences for ethnic Malays in land purchases, bank loans and university admissions have angered and alienated Chinese Malaysians. “We are always reminded that we are not full-fledged citizens,” said Ms. Tham, the sports instructor, who said she intended to vote for the opposition.

 Mr. Najib sounded defensive at times as he announced the dissolution of Parliament on national television. “Don’t gamble the future of your children and Malaysia,” he said. “Think and contemplate as much as you can before making a decision. Because that will determine the direction of the country and also your grandchildren’s future.”

 The precise date has yet to be set by the country’s election commission, but the vote must be held within two months; Malaysian news media speculation centered on late April. State legislatures will be elected the same day.

 Although the opposition has held some power at the state level over the last five years, some people still see a vote for the opposition as a leap in the dark.

 “Malaysians have been so loyal; it was blind loyalty,” Ms. Nariza said. “We grew up with this system, and there was never a strong alternative. Now there is. Can they deliver? We don’t know.”

(A version of this article appeared in print on April 4, 2013, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Malaysia Vote May Rule on Racial Divid)

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